“The wound is still fresh,” said the woman. She had offered a prayer at the start of a mid-year briefing by the National Road Safety Council (NRSC) today. She was the mother of a young man – her only son, a “wonderful son” – who was killed in a motor vehicle crash on the North-South Highway in June 2017. He died on his birthday. The pain has not gone away.
The bereaved mother reminded us that sudden death on our roads affects families, friends, communities. She pleaded with the public to “empathize” with those losing a brother, a wife, a friend, a neighbor this way. Moreover, she made a special appeal to the public to stop posting photos and videos on social media of road crash victims. Last summer, almost immediately, the mother said, her son’s dying moments were being circulated on social media – “before he took his last breath.”
To me, this cruel voyeurism is beyond comprehension. It’s the ultimate cold-heartedness, the exact opposite of Good Samaritan behavior.
Gathered in a wood-paneled room at the Office of the Prime Minister (he chairs the NRSC), we learned that no less than 66 young people, aged between 20 and 34 years old, have died on our roads so far this year. The most frequently affected age group in road accidents, according to a Health Ministry study conducted in seven hospitals, was 18 to 29 years. The head of the Traffic and Highway Division of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) SSP Calvin Allen informed us that up to today’s date, 178 people in total have died on Jamaica’s roads this year. This seems an extraordinarily high number, but it is a little lower than the same period last year, by which time 190 had died. There have been fewer collisions, but more people killed in each one.
SSP Allen pointed out that the number of deaths is not the only figure we need to pay attention to. What about those who are injured? Many have to live with injuries for the rest of their lives. Young men are disabled. However, many cannot obtain compensation or assistance. Why? Because the car they were traveling in was not insured and no claim can be made for high medical fees. He urged Jamaicans not to jump into “robot” taxis that are usually uninsured. I have seen some of these “robots” at traffic lights, with three or four people in the back. The driver, in a hurry, crouches over the steering wheel, dodging and weaving.
Minister of Health Christopher Tufton, stressing that road safety is a public health issue, pointed out that 90 percent of road fatalities are in developing countries like ours. We have a lot to learn from developed countries like Sweden, which according to NRSC Vice Chair Dr. Lucien Jones has assisted us with capacity building. Yet the World Health Organization reports that 90 percent of crashes can be prevented. How, exactly? It all comes back to behavior, again. One of Minister Tufton’s now-familiar themes is that Jamaicans must take responsibility for their own health and welfare – not only by eating right and exercising but also by taking care on the roads (whether driving, walking or riding). The National Drug Use Prevalence Survey of 2016 showed that 14.5 percent of the total population reported driving under the influence of illegal drugs; the percentage of Jamaicans aged 12 – 65 years driving under the influence of alcohol was almost the same (14.4 percent).
What is the answer? Change those bad habits. Change that risky behavior. If you do wrong and break the law, you must pay for it. If you get hurt, understand that it most likely could have been prevented and avoided.
Talking about law-breaking, Minister Tufton referred to the issue of corruption – specifically, the fact that Jamaicans are still getting drivers’ licenses without completing the test properly. They are given a “bligh.” Minister Tufton asserted that the days of asking for (and giving) a bligh “must end.” It is the Government’s responsibility to deal with this persistent problem. And again, once you get your license, “that doesn’t give you the right to behave like a stunt driver on the roads,” the minister asserted. Be responsible!
Dr. Parris Lyew-Ayee, Jr is a mapping man. As Director of the Mona Geoinformatics Institute at the University of the West Indies, he likes to go beyond the statistics. Mona GIS has created a 2017 Fatal Crash Map and the 2018 map is underway. It’s fascinating, and you can find the maps at http://www.traffic-crashmap.monagis.com
Dr. Lyew-Ayee raised some interesting points. Again, road safety is not mere numbers. “Context is important,” he noted. There is a chain of events – or actions if you like – that will lead up to each crash. So, for example, the report might be that “the driver lost control of the car,” but why? Was it because he was distracted by his cell phone? Was he drunk? Or was he unaware of the road code? Note I use the pronoun “he” – according to a 1991 – 2017 survey, four out of five fatalities were men.
There are very specific spots on specific roads where there is a greater likelihood of a crash (note: the term “accident” was not used because the fact is that these things don’t happen “accidentally” – they happen because of people’s behavior). The communities most affected by crashes last year, for example, were Old Harbour, St. Catherine, and Little London, Westmoreland. Lane violations, pedestrian behavior, and speeding were dominant factors on specific roads. And what about the “road geometry,” as Dr. Lyew-Ayee called it? Last year, 114 fatal crashes happened on straight roads, 80 on flat roads, and 107, not near intersections. Can’t blame the geometry here. It’s the driver behavior.
Executive Director of the NRSC Paula Fletcher took us through aspects of the multi-faceted Road Traffic Act, which passed in the Senate on May 11 this year. It is heading back to Parliament and should be signed off on by the end of August or September.
One word on technology. We all know that this is not the be-all and end-all of regulating traffic or catching bad drivers. However, CCTV has already made over 14,000 observations in two locations, spotting 3,765 cases of “running the red light” and hundreds of lane violations. This will be expanded, and it might become incorporated into the somewhat controversial Jamaica Eye project. I understand a private entity is interested in sponsoring this. We’ll see.
Therefore, it is how the technology is used that is critical. Not that we have it.
By the way, Transport Minister Robert Montague was absent at today’s event. I do hope that he and Minister Tufton will join the NRSC’s regular meetings with its chair, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, whenever they are able. The issue of road safety is far more complex than it appears on the surface, but strong teamwork, which has already shown itself, can find solutions. Let us get serious about road safety, which impinges on so many areas of our lives. And let’s take responsibility.